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Nebraska property tax ballot drive gains steam, donations

Posted at 1:22 PM, Sep 15, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A petition drive that seeks to lower Nebraska property taxes by sharply cutting state revenue is gaining steam and donations despite concerns from some groups that it would force lawmakers to raise other taxes and cut state services.

The group TRUE Nebraskans now has more than 200 volunteers gathering petition signatures throughout the state and is planning to add paid circulators soon.

Organizers have also seen an uptick in contributions, including $10,000 in July from an Omaha couple. Organizers said they expect to report more large donations next month.

“We want to keep pushing, but we feel very, very good about where we are,” said Paul Von Behren, the group’s president. “It’s really started to pick up momentum.”

TRUE Nebraskans launched its campaign in May after lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on major property tax legislation in this year’s session. Farmers and ranchers have complained about soaring property taxes driven by rising agricultural land values. The higher land values resulted in less state aid for many school districts, which were forced to make up the difference with local property tax revenue.

Opponents, including Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, said the plan would create a state budget crisis that would force state officials to drastically cut government services, increase other taxes or, most likely, some combination of both.

“If enacted, the ballot initiative would likely result in massive tax increases that would hurt job creation and working Nebraska families,” said Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Ricketts.

The measure would provide all landowners with a state income tax credit equal to 35% of their annual property tax bill. It would cost the state an estimated $1.5 billion in 2021, nearly one-third of its entire general-fund budget.

“It sounds too good to be true because it is,” said Renee Fry, executive director of the OpenSky Policy Institute, a Nebraska tax policy think tank. “It would put us in a complete state of crisis.”

There’s no way to know what lawmakers would cut, but Fry said the list could include services for the elderly, child care, K-12 schools and the University of Nebraska. It also could mean higher sales, income or gas taxes. Because the ballot proposal is a constitutional amendment, lawmakers wouldn’t be able to overturn it in the following year’s session.

“People are going to end up getting hurt in ways we can’t even fathom,” Fry said.

Even so, the measure has gained some prominent support from a coalition of rural state lawmakers as well as Hal Daub, a former Republican congressman, University of Nebraska regent and Omaha mayor.

Supporters said the arguments against the measure are scare tactics to thwart any major changes. They argued that lawmakers need to find a way to cut the budget, given the struggles many farmers now face.

“What about the people who keep paying these high taxes?” said Sen. Steve Erdman, an early and vocal supporter of the petition drive. “What cuts have they had to make in their personal finances to keep paying them? Nobody talks about that.”

Daub said he was drawn to the ballot proposal after watching state lawmakers debate tax policy for years but not make any sweeping changes. He said the measure isn’t perfect but argued it will force lawmakers to make difficult choices about government spending and taxes and fix an out-of-whack tax system that relies too heavily on property taxes.

“We’ve been talking about it and talking about it and talking about it,” Daub said. “We just need to figure out a mechanism to say to our lawmakers, ‘No more talk. It’s time to fix this.’”

At least eight senators from rural Nebraska are actively working on the petition drive, pitching it as the best option to force action on the most pressing issue in their districts. They haven’t had much success persuading lawmakers to approve major changes, and some of the senators believe they need to act before 2021, when redistricting is expected to eliminate one of their seats.

“I believe we’re going to make it happen,” Erdman said. “It’s amazing to see how many people have stepped up to volunteer.”

Erdman said he’s confident he has already met the minimum signature threshold in seven of the 10 counties in his Nebraska Panhandle district, and he plans to continue gathering signatures through next year.

TRUE Nebraskans needs to submit roughly 120,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office by July 2 to qualify for the November 2020 ballot. The group also needs signatures from at least 5% of the registered voters in 38 of Nebraska’s 93 counties.

Von Behren said the group just opened a campaign office in Omaha and is shooting to have half of the signatures it needs by December. He said the group recently gathered a large number of signatures at the Nebraska State Fair and Husker Harvest Days, but said he didn’t yet have exact numbers. He also expects it to appeal to homeowners in Nebraska’s larger cities.

“What we’ve found is the people in Douglas and Sarpy counties are about as angry as the ranchers out west,” he said.